Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Monday, July 02, 2018

Morning Thanks--the morning

Charles Wesley wrote something like 9000 poems in his life--can you imagine? It's a wonder he slept. Nearly 6000 were hymns. Even today, they're all over the hymnbook--yours, mine, and the folks down the street. His brother, John Wesley, however (they were two of the 18 kids), became more famous as an itinerant preacher who started an entire movement called Methodism.

If Charles thought it difficult to live with his sibling's celebrity, it doesn't show in his work. Give a listen: "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing," "And Can It Be," "O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing," "Love Divine, All Loves Excelling," "Jesus, Lover of My Soul," "Christ the Lord Is Risen Today," and "Rejoice! the Lord Is King!"--all Charles, all his work. There's hundreds more.

John Wesley is an important historical figure in the history of Protestantism, but brother Charles' poems are still sung hundreds of thousands of times every Sunday throughout the world. Not bad for a kid brother.

We sang one yesterday, a beauty some consider as brilliant and thoughtful as anything Charles Wesley ever wrote. "Christ, Whose Glory Fills the Skies" is a paean to Jesus, the light of the world. It's stunning poetry is rich and thoughtful. You can sing "Christ, Whose Glory" without thinking about the path it takes through life; but if you listen to the praise, it's not hard to determine why the old hymn won't be laid to rest. 

Christ, whose glory fills the skies,
Christ, the true and only Light,
Sun of righteousness, arise,
triumph o'er the shade of night;
Day-spring from on high, be near;
Day-star, in my heart appear.

The major motif is clear enough--Jesus, the son is Jesus the sun. Just as dawn--I'm sitting beside it right now--chases away darkness, so the Son sweeps hope and joy and life to a darkened world. What's real and what's symbol are sweetly entwined.

But it was the second verse that stopped me yesterday in church. 

Dark and cheerless is the morn
unaccompanied by Thee;
joyless is the day's return,
till Thy mercy's beams I see,
till they inward light impart,
glad my eyes, and warm my heart.

Again, the good Rev. Wesley's intent isn't a chore. What he's saying is that morning's opening moments--the hour or so before dawn--is "dark and cheerless" if it opens on its own, outside of the redeeming love of Christ. Only if "Thy mercy's beams" are present can my eyes be glad and my heart be warmed. Beauty is in the Son, not the sun. For a moment--correct me if I'm wrong--a dawn, even a knock-out gorgeous dawn, isn't a metaphor or a symbol. It's just not much of anything if I don't have Jesus. 

I don't care to quarrel with Charles Wesley, with his theology or his poetic talent. But when we sang that second verse, I was struck by how perfectly understandable the spirituality of the hymn was there, on display. This world's darkness is cheerless without Jesus. Let me try to put it this way: a dawn is only beautiful if I know the Lord. 

The animism in traditional Native religion would have some trouble understanding the dualism there, the strange sense that white folks require a God who stands somewhere outside the dawn. Traditionally, they might want to say that God is dawn. He's also rocks and trees and skies and seas. God is the great mystery of life itself, who lives and breathes in all things, including those shaggy bison. We honor that God when we honor the Missouri River and don't ruin it with pipelines. He isn't a symbol or a metaphor. 

But then, I think everyone could agree with Wesley's spirited final verse:

Visit then this soul of mine,
pierce the gloom of sin and grief;
fill me, radiancy divine,
scatter all my unbelief;
more and more Thyself display,
shining to the perfect day.

One of the peculiar results of 19th century mission work among First Nations was its somehow surprising successes. But, if you were Native and if you believed that all of life is religion, then picking up another form thereof wouldn't be particularly troublesome, would it? Sure we'll become Christian, some said. What's the fuss?

For a time, the sky outside my window wore a gorgeous peach stole along the horizon, a soft orange that faded into yellow, then to blue up high before the sun debuted. Now, long swaths of sunlight stretch over the fields east to west, scattering darkness. It's Midas time--everything wears a bit of gold. This morning's cloudless dawn is not glamorous, but it's beautiful.

"Christ, Whose Glory Fills the Skies" a wonderful hymn, and I'll sing it joyfully again soon, I hope. Wesley's a wonder, isn't he? 

But he's not the psalmist:

The heavens declare the glory of God; 
and the firmament sheweth his handywork. 
Day unto day uttereth speech, 
and night unto night sheweth knowledge. 
There is no speech nor language, 
where their voice is not heard.

Wesley's really good, but I'd like to believe that David's got it right.

This morning's thanks is for the morning. 

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